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Substandard Work

May 30th , 2018

Sharing work that’s a long way from finished—work that’s just the starting point or a single aspect of what we’re aiming for—is a crucial part of working with other people. And thinking of it as substandard is a useful step in getting better at that sharing.

It might seem easier to share work that’s 99% there, almost perfect, just in need of some magic fairy dust to make it better. But sharing far less developed things can be more beneficial for everyone.

There’s a pleasure that comes with the freedom to show substandard work: the implied trust that others have in you to make something better, to build on what’s there; the value you place in others to contribute more than just tweaks; and the loss of friction you feel as you no longer need to agonise over things being good enough.

Collaborative tools like Google Docs have given us the ability to stick half-baked ideas into a semi-public space. But they haven’t necessarily given us permission. Even explicit encouragement to throw something together can be meaningless when the relationship isn’t based on a reasonable level of trust.

Substandard work as a vital part of an iterative, collaborative process is different from the binary of success and failure. Rather than experimentation to see what sticks, substandard work is about the kernel of something valuable unfettered by the need to complete the picture before showing it to someone else.

It’s about finding the smoothest path between an idea and its audience; it’s about the kind of mutual understanding that allows that idea to become something better through contact with other people; and ultimately it’s a powerful way to learn.

If we wait, if we internalise the process of improvement, we close ourselves off from the immediate feedback that accelerates our ability to learn more than we can teach ourselves. But to different extents we’ve learned to internalise; we each have our own expectations of what makes something ready or good enough.

If we want to get better at sharing substandard work we need to help each other. We need to learn and unlearn: collectively change our ways of looking at what people share with us and develop the trust that allows us show people just the essence of something rather than the finished article. After all, the finished article might but substandard in its own way, and with a lot less opportunity for improvement.